06 August 2008
"Coach Mac" - as Nick Saban likes to call Jim McElwain
- is "quarterback friendly". He's a funny guy - he opened his first press conference
by saying that there was "pretty good chance" John Parker Wilson would be our quarterback against Clemson. He clearly has been properly indoctrinated with all the "Saban-speak" - he talked about consistency and "winning every down" - I half expected an "a'ight" out him.
You've also likely seen a lot Bama fans talking about McElwain and their hopes for what he can do to Bama's offense in 2008. Why is there such optimism? And what exactly does McElwain do differently than last season's coordinator Major Applewhite
First off, let's deal with last year. Considering Alabama's 7-6 record, it probably would not surprise you to find out that the Tide was 7th in the SEC in total offense at 373.8 yards per game. They came by that 7th place finish honestly - 6th in passing offense at 224.5 ypg & 8th in rushing offense at 149.2 ypg. All that mediocrity led to a 7th place finish in scoring offense at 27.1 points per game.
There was a lot of talk during the season about who was making the play calls. Was Major Applewhite the guy behind the offense, or was it really Associate Head Coach for Offense Joe Pendry
? Our sources tell us that it was absolutely, 100% Major Applewhite making the calls on game day. At least as much as any coordinator makes calls under a head coach like Nick Saban.
However, Applewhite's level of input into game planning is a different beast altogether. Based on things that were said by Applewhite - and his new employer Mack Brown - it's easy to assume that Pendry and Saban were doing most of the game-planning. Our sources also indicate that's the case. So Pendry and Saban would give Applewhite a game plan, and he would call plays within that.
So why should 2008 be different? Will McElwain be handcuffed by the same limitations that Major Applewhite faced?
The answer to that is resoundingly no.
Major Applewhite came to Alabama as a 28 year-old with 1 year of offensive coordinator experience at Rice and one year as QB coach at Syracuse.
Jim McElwain is 46 years old and has 8 years of offensive coordinator experience between Montana State & Fresno State, as a part of his 21 years as a college and NFL assistant coach. Included in his experience are 3 years of being the assistant head coach at Michigan State and a year of being the quarterback coach for the Oakland Raiders.
Where Applewhite lacked experience, McElwain comes to Tuscaloosa armed with loads of it.
In our player profile of John Parker Wilson
we gave you some of the stats regarding McElwain's latest stint - the offensive coordinator and QB coach at Fresno State. Those bear repeating. Prior to his arrival at Fresno State the Bulldogs' QB Tom Brandstater had a very mediocre 2006 season – a 54.5% completion ratio with 14 interceptions to 13 TDs, 1,490 yards and an 89th ranked QB rating of 106.74. Under McElwain's watch in 2007 Brandstater improved to a 62.6% completion ratio, 15 TDs to 5 interceptions, 2,654 yards a 23rd ranked 140.5 QB rating.
That's what I call "quarterback friendly".
His job will be more than just that of QB coach, however. So what about the rest of the Bulldogs offense?
Here's the two year comparison for the year before McElwain and his first year at Fresno State:
|Points per Game
|Total Offense YPG
Typically you will see a team improve either rushing or passing at the expense of the other. The fact that McElwain was able to improve the Bulldogs offense by 81 yards per game, while improving BOTH the rushing attack and the passing attack is amazing. That also explains why the Bulldogs scored almost 10 more points per game.
But will this work under Nick Saban?
Look no further than the individual numbers breakdown for Nick Saban at LSU & Alabama:
- 2001 @ LSU – 2 players with more than 75 rushing attempts & more than 400 rushing yards and 3 players with more than 39 receptions & more than 450 receiving yards
- 2002 @ LSU – 3 players with more than 50 rushing attempts & more than 350 rushing yards
- 2003 @ LSU – 2 players with more than 100 rushing attempts & more than 500 rushing yards and 3 players with more than 45 receptions & more than 500 receiving yards
- 2004 @ LSU – 4 players with more than 75 rushing attempts & 2 with more than 680 rushing yards and 3 players with more than 39 receptions & more than 597 receiving yards
- 2006 @ Alabama – 2 players with more than 100 rushing attempts & 500 rushing yards and 2 players with more than 40 receptions & more than 475 receiving yards
Simply put, Nick Saban likes to spread the ball around. He doesn't like to have one guy carry the load in the either the rushing game or the passing game.
Let's compare that to the breakdown for Fresno State prior to McElwain, and then to the Bulldogs with McElwain at the helm:
- In 2006 the Bulldogs leading rusher had 1,525 yards on 261 carries, with 11 TDs. Those are great numbers, but indicative of one "featured" back. The #2 rusher on the team had only 54 carries for 288 yards.
- In 2007, with McElwain, 4 different guys had more than 100 carries, and 3 of them had more than 600 yards.
- In 2006 only 1 player had more than 30 receptions, and only 2 had more than 25.
- In 2007 3 players had more than 35 receptions, with 2 topping 45. Those 2 players also had greater than 500 yards receiving.
So now we've got an offensive coordinator who likes to spread the ball around and use all of the weapons at his disposal paired with a head coach who likes to do the same thing.
In his National Championship season at LSU (2003), Saban had 5 players with more than 75 rushing attempts. In his 2003 recruiting class (ranked #1 in the nation by Rivals.com) he signed 1 3-star, 2 4-star & 1 5-star running back. He loves to have a stable of horses and to spread the carries among them.
Look again at McElwain's 2007 numbers at Fresno – 4 players with more than 100 rushing attempts. Do you see a similarity there?
So what can we expect to see in 2008?
We've heard Nick Saban talk about having a balanced offense. McElwain's offense in 2006 averaged 210.9 yards on the ground and 208.6 in the air. That's pretty balanced.
Another trend that he has showed in his career is the ability to improve a QB completion percentage. He is able to do this by a combination of things:
1. He establishes a running attack that keeps teams out of nickel defenses and allows for the effective use of play action passes.
A quick look at Bama's depth chart shows 7 scholarship players who are expected to begin the season at running back – Glen Coffee
, Roy Upchurch
, Terry Grant
, Jeramie Griffin
, Chris Jordan
, Mark Ingram
, and Ivan Matchett
. Obviously not all of those guys are going to play, and I would expect Jordan and Matchett to redshirt or move elsewhere (ED: likely on the defensive side of the ball). And Jeramie Griffin is more a fullback or short yardage back.
But that still leaves Coffee, Upchurch, and Grant to split the carries. My guess is that it will likely be more of a 3-back rotation. Ingram seems ready, and that likely means no redshirt for him. If he's not shirted, he'll work into the rotation as well.
2. He uses his backs and tight ends on short and intermediate routes that are high percentage passes.
The Bulldogs third leading receiver in 2007 was running back Clifton Smith, with 33 receptions for 352 yards. In all, the backs had 39 receptions. Fresno's 2nd leading receiver was tight end Bear Pasco, and in all three different TEs caught passes, totaling 49 receptions.
3. He likes to isolate his smaller, quicker receivers on linebackers and get them the ball in space, typically with short crossing routes or bubble screens.
Bama has several of these smaller, quicker guys – Nikita Stover, Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks, Terry Grant, incoming freshman Burton Scott, and Jonathan Lowe (assuming he's invited back to the team in the fall). These guys all posses the ability to make guys miss and rack up huge totals in yards after the catch.
4. He is considered a teaching guru, a guy capable of improving both the physical and mental make-up of his quarterbacks.
John Parker Wilson is a senior QB who is now dealing with his 3rd offensive coordinator in 3 years. His mechanics were a mess at times last season, with most of his problems stemming from throwing off of his back foot. At times he was also unable to recover from a mistake, compounding one turnover with another. Improvement in his foot-work and in his ability to learn from, and move on from mistakes should allow him to be much more effective.
Accomplishing these 4 things not only allows the offense to eat up yards and time on the clock, but it also opens things up for the bigger receivers on the outside. Teams either have to go to man-to-man coverage, or have their zone defense much closer to the line of scrimmage. This allows guys like Mike McCoy, Earl Alexander, Brandon Gibson & incoming freshman Julio Jones to use their size (and, in the case of McCoy and Jones, speed) to take advantage one-on-one outside containment, or safeties that are not deep enough to contain their deep routes.
This forces teams to pick their poison:
- Guard against the bigger receivers beating them downfield and open up the middle and underneath routes for the smaller guys.
- Guard those underneath routes and open up the outside and the deep ball.
- Go to nickel and dime packages to cover the entire field and open up the ground attack.
Nick Saban has said many times that having a balanced attack doesn't necessarily mean having equal numbers in rushing and passing, as McElwain's 2006 team did. What it truly means is having the ability to run or pass effectively when you want, or more importantly, need to.
By spreading the field and making the defense guard the field both vertically and horizontally, you force the defense to make hard choices. Then you take what the defense gives you - which you can only do if you're able to recognize and execute.
And that is exactly what Jim McElwain specializes in.